I've written about what these non-National Park Service monuments, recreation areas, historic sites, etc. mean to me before, why they are important to me, and why I believe they are important to the United States in general...
However, I have only hinted at what so many of these 27 monuments, what so many of these specific monuments, targeted for elimination by President Trump, mean to me on a very personal level. As we spiral in towards the end of the comments period on this process of elimination, it is probably time for me to be a little more candid about the personal reasons behind my advocacy for this cause.
This may be a long post, and mostly personal... I feel that what I need to say about this cause hasn't entirely been said yet. It is a personal story that has nothing to do with our public lands, but it is a public story, too, about how our public lands are important to us as individual citizens in so many different ways...
Growing up, I was defined in so many ways by our public lands, especially our National Parks. Every day growing up I could see the mountain at the center of Mt. Rainier National Park. Through my childhood, almost all of our family vacations were spent in a camper visiting as many National Park Service sites as possible, from the big name destinations like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, to all the little Monuments, Recreation Areas, and other sites we could hit along the way. On one of those early trips, I bought a guidebook to the National Park Service sites, and I'd check off all the Parks, Monuments, National Recreation Areas, Historic Sites, and so forth as we traveled. It was one of the joys of my childhood.
Anyone who has visited my website (or blog) knows that I still enjoy that pursuit today, but now I make my check marks with photos, instead of using ink and dull pencil on pages within an old, dog eared, and dirt stained book.
Beyond instilling a love of parks and monuments in me, those childhood travels also largely defined the course of my life.
When I was seven years old, I stood on the south rim of the Grand Canyon with my parents on a trip that I remember well to this day... At the time, my father considered himself a fair amateur photographer, and tossed me a Polaroid camera to play with on the trip (shake and wave to see the photos emerge!). My parents were impressed with the shots I got on that trip, even though the camera was dying and left weird UFO looking bright spots on the photos, and decided that it was time I had my own camera. So began my lifetime relationship with the camera.
From that early age up through the end of high school, I always considered myself a photographer first. I took classes from junior high on, was the Photography Editor of my high school paper and some other publications, all through on to college, when my interests (probably because of the loss of access to a good darkroom) shifted more towards theater and music. And all of that, and what would come later, dated back to a trip to Grand Canyon National Park in the summer between the first and second grade.
Can our National Parks and Monuments change lives? Absolutely.
Over the years I did not always consider myself a photographer first. I spent time playing music, working in theater, just working to survive, and raising some kids through some hard times where little mattered outside of the needs of the immediate family, but it was the one thing I always returned to.
Many years later, photography once again became the forefront of my life, and once again, it was largely due to our National Parks and Monuments...
Whenever possible, while my kids were growing up, we took long summer road trips, trying to share with them the experiences I had as a kid and, during this time, I was becoming, more and more focused on my photography. The highlights of our trips would always be the National Parks and Monuments, but now, there were also monuments and sites that were run by agencies other than the National Park Service. While not as well known to most, these sites would often become the highlights of our travels. We tried to hit as many of them as we could.
Last year, while the internet was hating on 2016, in many ways 2016 felt like it was really hating on me. My father was dying, my family was disintegrating (no fault between the kids' mother and I, we get along great today), and the only solace I could find was on the road, traveling between obligation and obligation, and spending as much time as possible in our country's protected lands.
It was how I stayed somewhat sane through the hardest year of my life.
For my eldest son's spring break, we took a two week trip through the southwest to visit my dying father. Understanding that it was the centennial of the National Park Service, we decided to hit as many parks as possible between our home in Oregon and my father's home in Tucson, Arizona.
This led to a "project" of mine to hit as many parks, monuments, etc., as possible, both NPS and non-NPS, before the year was over. Being a hard year, I didn't do as well as I wished, but I did okay. This year, with the 27 monuments on the line, it was easy to merge over into this project.
So what? Here's what...
Last spring, in Tucson with my son, visiting my dying father, we went out with my father for most of the day, visiting Saguaro National Park and other cool places in the area, but one night, Dad was feeling rundown and my son was feeling restless (as was I), so we went off to explore a little bit of Ironwood Forest National Monument for the last couple hours of the day.
While exploring the monument, we had a reprieve from the reasons for the trip, and were reminded of everything we love... If this monument wasn't there, we would still have gone someplace, but maybe not here. We went there because it was a National Monument, and we found solace from a difficult time because it was there.
Over and over last year, this is the story. I found solace in the parks and monuments. I've been to many on the list of 27, but I would have been to none if it were not for the crummy year I had. I visited every place I visited last year because of the issues involving my family, and these amazing places gave me needed refuge from the storms in my life and an opportunity to find meaning through my art.
I could take pictures, I could learn, I could explore, and I could do everything I needed to do because these places were protected, because they were not closed for oil, gas, and coal development... Because they were not ruined for public use by industry. I could deal with spending the last night of my month long trip through the southwest (a few weeks after the trip to see my father) on a hill covered with cattle shit because, well, look at the sky... But I would not even be let into that spot if there was an oil or coal operation near by. So, grazing issues, we'll talk...
And I needed that night by the fire. Like water... Like oxygen...
Sure, I got some (I think) great photos from that trip and I will post them soon. But I also got sanity and a much needed break from the quote-unquote civilized world. And that night, on a pile of cow shit next to a blazing cook fire, and the next day dodging flash floods in slot canyons, I had some life defining experiences in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument that may prove to be just as important to me over the decades as that day, so many years ago, on the south rim of the Grand Canyon was, a moment with a direct line leading between the decades from one National Park in the late 1970s to a National Monument in 2016.
In one life, if I can have so many life changing experiences in these places, life saving experiences, how many more can claim the same? Thousands? Millions?
I was directed to Grand Staircase-Escalante on that trip by a couple I met on a trail in Arches National Park who told me that I could not leave Utah until I visited that monument. The only reason, they said, that they were in Arches, run by the National Park Service, was because they wanted to return to Grand Staircase-Escalante, run by the BLM, and one of the most endangered of the 27 monuments on the current list.
So, a couple from San Francisco and a fellow from Portland, Oregon traveled hundred of miles to, and spent a lot of money in, one of the most rural parts of the United States because of the existence of a National Monument that the current President wants to eliminate.
Each and every one of these 27 monuments has changed someone's life for the better and made our nation stronger for it. Even the newest ones. With responsible management, including local input, how many more folks can be empowered and fueled by their visits to these places? Let alone the scientific knowledge these place offer? The historical knowledge yet to be learned and the sacred sites still sacred to many? The importance of preserving these places to preserve the nature in America that defines America on every level?
These are but a few slivers of the story about what these places mean to me. Almost every moment of time spent in these places could be a story this long all on its own. I will share many of these stories over time, whether or not these places remain protected by their monument status.
The handful of the 27 I was blessed to visit last year were a huge part of me staying healthy and sane through trying times. I know I am not the only one who has been changed, saved, or both by these places. America is starved for these experiences. America is better for these monuments. We only hurt ourselves, our nation, our freedom, and our strength by eliminating them.
Through this project on the 27, I've seen these sentiments echoed over and over by all segments of society. Local landowners, local government officials, national politicians, local residents, and business owners... With few exceptions, the general consensus seems to be to leave these monuments as they are. I’ve been looking for dissent where I can, and it is very hard to find. Especially rational dissent. My goal has been to present both sides of the story, and if my work feels one sided, well, figure that out on your own...
Keeping the monuments, as is, for the most part, is the majority opinion of the folks advocating for their own benefits, regardless of political party. Almost every time I see someone advocating against one of these monuments, it seems like their opinion is mostly fueled by their opposition to the political party of the President who created it, or by ties to corporations looking to profit, and not by whether or not the monument designation is actually benefiting the greater good of the public.
The preservation and promotion of the treasures of our national, public lands is one of America's best ideas ever. It has been replicated around the world. It is a sign of our leadership in the world. There would probably be no national parks or monuments anywhere in any country if it were not for the United States. So, let's not be the first to say... "Eh... We re-thought it. Bad idea."
Let's not walk this backwards. Write, call, comment, share...
Make a joyous noise, preferably with great pictures and greater stories... Let's defend our public lands! Let's defend these 27 monuments! Let's defend against any future erosion of our National Parks that a hit against these 27 monuments might lead to.
And get out, learn about, and experience all of these amazing places for yourself.
I guarantee, it will change your life for the better.
Tuscon Sentinel: Az GOP congressmen call for end of Ironwood, Sonoran nat'l monuments (July 5, 2017)
As TucsonSentinel.com columnist Blake Morlock pointed out in May, the Ironwood monument was created as part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which is Pima County's "effort to guide growth, protect the environment and provide developers with a simpler path to get their projects built."
Ironwood "is also part of a giant 'mitigation bank' for the Endangered Species Act," Morlock wrote. "Simply put, developers in critical habitat can build only if they preserve an amount of critical habitat up to three times the acreage that they blade. So the Ironwood's 72,000 acres of land got roped off, which in fact allows up to thousands of acres of development closer to town."
Members of the Congressional Western Caucus, including U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, the chair, and Reps. Andy Biggs and Trent Franks, all Arizona Republicans, joined several other for their party in calling on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to rescind the declarations of the monuments, which were established by previous presidents.
They said that the Ironwood monument near Tucson restricts possible mining operations, and that the Sonoran Desert monument, 100 miles from the border near Gila Bend, "jeopardizes national security" by limiting Border Patrol agents.